The Lexus LS might not be the brand's best-selling model (that would be the RX crossover), but it is certainly Lexus's signature vehicle. When Toyota launched Lexus in late 1989, it was the LS400, far more than the rectangular, Camry-esqe ES250, that captured the public's imagination. Since then, the top Lexus sedan has had a remarkably evolutionary . . . well, evolution.
So it's perhaps not surprising that over the course of twelve months and nearly 30,000 miles, we found our LS460L to exhibit all the traits (including sterling quality) that have made the LS - and, by extension, Lexus itself - a dominant force in the U.S. luxury-car market. But that evolution also means that the LS is starting to look and feel almost too familiar, even - could it be? - a little stale.
To its credit, this fourth-generation LS has changed more than any of the previous redesigns. Most obvious are the two additions to the lineup. First, there's a new, extended-wheelbase version - a brand extension so natural it's hard to believe that it wasn't offered before. And there's a new, six-figure range topper, the LS600hL, a (slightly) alternative take on the flagship genre in that it uses a hybrid V-8 powertrain instead of a twelve-cylinder engine.
Even though our LS460L lacked electric propulsion and a trunk full of batteries, it turned in very good fuel economy, averaging 21 mpg over twelve months. That betters previous Four Seasons megacruisers such as the Volkswagen Phaeton (19 mpg) and the BMW 745Li (20 mpg), if not the smaller and much lighter Jaguar XJ8 (22 mpg). Highway mileage sometimes reached the high twenties. "Wow!" exclaimed one leadfoot driver, "28.0 indicated mpg over the last 140 miles cruising at 90 mph with three passengers and the A/C on."
This big Lexus has a new powertrain: a 4.6-liter V-8 making a robust 380 hp paired with an eight-speed automatic. The transmission struck us as a rather meaningless one-upmanship over Mercedes-Benz's seven-speed, particularly since the LS seemed to use only four ratios. Booting the accelerator would drop the gearbox from eighth gear all the way down to third. Still, the ultratall top gear aided fuel economy, and the powertrain worked flawlessly overall. Editor-in-chief Jean Jennings called it "the very definition of smoothness," and no one disagreed.
Upon the car's debut, the feature that had the morning TV news shows all atwitter with its futuristic implications (The Car That Drives Itself!) was the hands-free parking option. This advanced parking guidance system, in Lexus-speak, at first seems like a bargain at only $700 (on top of the required $500 intuitive parking assist). That's before you try to use it. Yes, the system does work, but setting it in motion requires precise positioning and a series of on-screen commands, and it ends up taking far longer than simply parking the car yourself (particularly with the LS460L's standard rearview camera and best-in-class turning circle). Several staffers experimented with it just to check out the novelty, but no one used it in practice.
The LS460L's myriad other electronics were better received. The navigation system (standard on the L) is extremely well-done, and the XM NavTraffic system, which highlights slow-moving roads in yellow, proved useful in Detroit and Pittsburgh but showed L.A.'s freeway system to be a massive yellow hell (accurate, perhaps, but not terribly helpful). Several drivers praised the adaptive cruise control, although it's pricey at $2850. We were glad not to use its precollision feature, which quickens the steering and preapplies the brakes when it senses that a crash is likely.
For about the same money ($2530), we got a lot more enjoyment out of the Mark Levinson audio system, which includes a hard drive for music storage. As to the sound quality, we'll let self-described symphonic snob and friend of the magazine Charley Sullivan speak for us: "Mahler's Symphony Number 6 is known for its wide-ranging and quickly changing sonic landscapes. The stereo handled both the broad, full, lush sounds and the small details of the chamber sections with such clarity that you could hear the tonguing attack of the trumpets and feel the reverberating thunder of the tympani. Switching to the true test, opera - Puccini's 'Un bel d vedremo' from Madama Butterfly - the Levinson again was a masterpiece of texture and intimacy; every emotion of the aria came cascading through the speakers with balance from the background score. This should please even the pickiest aficionado."
Sadly, we missed out on the executive-class seating package, with its two-seat rear compartment that includes a first-class-style integrated ottoman. Still, we weren't exactly stuck in coach. First of all, the rear seats provide enough stretch-out room that passengers as tall as six-foot-five marveled at the space. Also, we were rolling with the luxury package ($2780), which includes extrasoft semi-aniline leather as well as heated and cooled rear seats, among other niceties. We should have skipped the rear-seat upgrade package, however, because its "cool box" and its auxiliary air-conditioner hogged trunk space, although its power sunshades in the rear doors amused small children.
Adults were impressed by the overall luxury and touches like the soft-closing console lids, the solid thunk of the doors, and the straightforward layout of the many controls and switches. "Kudos to Lexus for not trying to 'clean up' the dashboard with some multimedia controller," said one. "You cannot fault the execution or the ergonomics," agreed executive editor Joe DeMatio, "but the Lexus interior decor theme is getting a little tired." Indeed, when the brand debuted, Lexus redefined what a high-quality interior should look like. Much of the industry now hews to that template. But the design of the LS interior has barely budged in nearly two decades, whereas its German competitors have moved confidently forward.
The exterior design also seems stuck in a rut. "There ought to be something about a design that gives it more individuality, more character, and more desirability than the LS460 can muster," wrote design editor Robert Cumberford. Large and imposing as the new long-wheelbase Lexus might be, as production manager Al Luckwald opined, "It just doesn't have the street presence that says, 'I'm driving an $86,000 car.' " Of course, some were able to find the upside in that situation: "The LS460L was completely unfazed at 130 mph - and so was the cop I flew past," West Coast editor Jason Cammisa penned in the logbook. "It's a good thing the styling is so innocuous, or I'd have been put in jail."
If the design is comfortably familiar, so, too, is the driving experience. "There's that distinct soft Lexus edge to all the dynamic reactions," said DeMatio. Or, as technical editor Don Sherman characterized it: "The filtration is comprehensive." "But that isolation is exactly what buyers will expect," countered Cammisa. He's probably correct. Lexus does try to expand the car's dynamic envelope by offering an optional air suspension, which has three firmness settings. But as is often the case with this solution, there's no ideal position. The comfort mode delivers a plush ride but can't match the body control of a Mercedes-Benz S-class. Switch to sport, and you get impact harshness over big bumps. Even with the air suspension, "the LS has nothing over the now-aging BMW 7-series in terms of steering feel, wheel control, or in its ability to provide a ride that is comfortable yet tied down," offered road test editor Marc Noordeloos. And as in the Lexus GS430, the electronically activated brakes were panned for being touchy and nonlinear.
None of these faults detracted from the LS460L's excellence as a cross-country device. "It was the perfect companion for my 1200-mile weekend trip," said copy editor Rusty Blackwell. And DeMatio took advantage of the Lexus to make a 550-mile round trip to Michigan's Leelanau peninsula - in one day. "Fourteen hours there and back - the Lexus was the perfect car for such an excursion."
That's exactly the kind of thing you expect from the LS. So is impeccable reliability, which our car delivered over some 30,000 miles. "It fills its intended purpose really well," said Cammisa. Noordeloos summed up: "The LS460 is, by far, the best Lexus of the range. It accomplishes just what it set out to do - be a big, comfortable luxury car." Call us optimists, but we think it could even be a little bit more.
The LS400, together with the ES250, launches the Lexus division in September. The ES250 is a warmed-over Toyota Camry, but the LS400 is an entirely new car and quickly becomes the poster child for the new marque. At $35,000, the LS400 undercuts mid-size Mercedes-Benz and BMW models in price, even though the Lexus is closer in size to an S-class or a 7-series.
A completely and yet almost undetectably new LS400 debuts as a '95 model.
The third-generation, 2001 LS takes the name LS430, reflecting its 4.3-liter V-8. Adaptive cruise control, heated and cooled seats, and a Mark Levinson audio system appear on the options list. That same year, Lexus overtakes Mercedes-Benz to become the best-selling luxury-car brand in America.
The fourth new LS, powered by a 4.6-liter V-8, goes on sale in October as the LS460 and the LS460L. The LS600hL hybrid follows in July 2007.